The Role of Horses in Ancient Greece
by: Sarah Kline
by: Sarah Kline
Horses have been an important, if not vital, part of most great societies. This fact was no less true in Ancient Greek society where horses were held on a level just below the gods. According to I. Menegatos, a lecturer from the Agricultural University of Athens, there were eight different breeds of Greek horses. All eight breeds were valued equally as “majestic or awe-inspiring beasts.” This was especially true in scenes of battle.
In Greek society, horses were highly valued for several reasons. The main reason rested with the fact that horses represented wealth. With good pasture so expensive, horses remained a symbol of wealth throughout all of Greek history. They were used mainly for the “essentially upper-class pastimes of hunting and racing in peacetime and for cavalry service during wartime.” Although horses were generally purchased for use in the Greek cavalry, very little money came from the government for their upkeep. What did come was in the form of a loan, to be paid back upon the horse’s death or loss of usefulness.
Tremendous amounts of money went into the purchase and upkeep of these treasured animals. Money was spent to purchase the horse, to buy its armor, to buy a groom, and to maintain a stable or pay to board the horse at someone else’s stable. All this, plus the everyday cost of food. In addition, money would need to be spent by the owner if ever the horse were to get sick or injured. Researchers have tried to estimate the costs incurred by these horse owners, but have managed only to come up with approximate prices for the grain ration fed daily. The figures they arrived at constituted a goodly sum back then. This was money that only a select few in the fourth century B.C. possessed.
Breeding of these horses was an even more expensive venture than simply owning them, and was undertaken only by the extremely affluent. Eight breeds were cultivated in Ancient Greece: Thessaly, Skyros, Pindos, Pineias, Andravidas, Crete (Messara), Ainou, and Zakynthos. Due to the poor vegetation and harsh living conditions in most of Greece at the time, all eight of these breeds developed into sturdy but comparatively small horses.
Probably the greatest link to wealth that riding had however, was its association with royalty. Herodotos’ earlier claim, that children ought to be taught three things: to ride, to use a bow, and to tell the truth, was echoed by the fourth century belief that the sons of kings should be educated in riding and the art of war. This belief inextricably linked the cavalry (the main horse-owning population) with wealth.
The second reason for the value of horses to the Greeks comes from their mythology. Horses are intertwined throughout the whole of Greek mythology. They are linked from beginning to end with both the gods and the heroes. So loved were they, that it was common, when praising the virtues of a god or goddess, to refer to their excellent horse skills or even to compare them to the noble creatures. Aphrodite, for instance, was described as "golden-reined" by the writer, Aischylosas. Common also was the practice of presenting horse votives (small horse statues) to the gods as offerings.
This love and admiration of horses came, in part, from the content of the myths, which were filled with stories of the gods riding horses, being pulled in horse-drawn chariots, or giving horses as gifts to mortals. Poseidon (God of the sea) was always associated with horses. He was pictured being pulled (in the water) in a chariot pulled by golden seahorses. He was also the father of Pegasus. Mortals who were given special horses by the gods knew they were much loved. Such a man was Bellerophon who was given the key to catching the famous winged horse Pegasus by the goddess Athena. Xanthus and Balius are yet another example of horses given as a gift from a god. The two were immortal horses given by Zeus to Achilles. These and other Greek myths about horses were told over and over to the people, until they began to associate horses with the gods and heroes they adored.
A third reason for the value of horses in Greek society concerned their use in sports. Horseracing and chariot racing were big sports in Greece. So big in fact that they were incorporated into the Olympics some time after the games were started in 776 B.C. Horse races in the Olympics were mildly entertaining, and brought only the prize of an olive wreath. This wreath of course did not go to the jockey, but to the owner of the horse. The logic being that since the maintenance of the horse and the jockey cost the owner a great sum of money, he should be the one to get the prize.
Chariot races, however, were much more exciting. They were, in fact, among the most exciting events in the ancient Olympic games. Many people were drawn to the event because of its unpredictability and crashes. For that same reason, the wealthy owners of the horses and the chariots rarely participated in the races. They hired professional jockeys to race for them. A victory in a chariot race often brought great honor and glory to the rider and his city of origin.
Chariot races and horse races happened outside the Olympics as well. During peace times, men would frequently bet on races. The prizes varied, and could be anything from a vase to a woman. The men also used their horses to go hunting. This was not as common in the fourth century as it would later become, but it still occurred sometimes. Less common still, was fighting on horseback. When fights did take place, the men would not injure the horse. To do so would be to be seen as unchivalrous. All the men knew the value of the horse and honored that value, even when fighting.
Lastly, the Greeks valued horses for their use in war. Using horses in battle was a very new idea in the fourth century B.C. The Greeks were stepping out on a limb by being one of the first to ride horses into battle. Some cavalries would ride horses to the battle and then get off to fight. Others, including Greece, used horses to pull their chariots into battle. But Greece also learned to use them to face the enemy. One major advantage was mobility. Moving an army of men on horseback is much faster than moving men on foot. Another advantage was the intimidation factor. But not only did the cavalry look big and scary, it could defeat the unmounted enemy, and could win just as easily when faced with light horses.
The only problems for the cavalry arose from the fact that they had no stirrups and high or broken ground. Neither of these things slowed them down enough to weaken their offense however. By the time terrain became a problem they had already stopped the enemy threat. The only negative effect, for the cavalry, that these two factors had was to reduce the number of infantry killed as they rushed to get to broken ground where they would be safe.
Scanty amounts of horse armor have been found from that time period. Cheek pieces appear to have been used; the double purpose was given them of blinkers and protection. Occasionally a forehead piece, called a frontlet, would be used along with the cheek pieces. There is the possibility that horse-breastplates were used also, but this is not known for sure. But even with the scanty armor the cavalry of Ancient Greek used for it’s horses, the cavalry was stronger then any other troop.
Horses were seen as much more than just animals in Ancient Greece. These treasured creatures symbolized wealth and opportunity. They were a daily source of entertainment. But perhaps most importantly horses were an integral part of a system of deeply held beliefs. The value of the horse in Ancient Greece can only ever be guessed at, but one thing is certain; it is that horses were truly cherished.